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How to Argue Online: Have you ever had an online argument that absolutely drained you mentally?
What am I saying? Of course you have, this is 2020 after all! As we all know, this rotten buttsnack of a year has been the most divisive in recent history.
And where our differences really show is in the comments.
And boy can they get nasty. Personal attacks, name calling, and even doxxing seem to be the consequences of talking politics (or literally anything) on the internet.
It can get really scary. Believe me, I’ve been there too – shaken because I can’t believe the audacity and unkindness hurled at me. It’s enough to make you want to chuck your phone out the window like a hot potato and become a monk.
But before you do that, maybe give this article a read and see if it changes your mind. (If it doesn’t, you have my full permission to chuck that phone and namaste away from the internet by all means).
First, let’s start with the basics. Like why it’s actually pretty damn important to argue with strangers on the internet.
Why is it Important to Argue Online?
Okay, okay I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous but let me explain!
Back in the day, I considered arguing with strangers on the internet the penultimate exercise in frustration. It was foolish, a waste of energy, and just left everyone with a bad taste in their mouth. Yuck. No thanks.
But then 2020 happened. And I learned that staying quiet about what I believed in wasn’t gonna fly anymore. I discovered that keeping mum about social justice issues was actually more harmful to the cause than speaking out.
So instead of scrolling past posts that I didn’t agree with or blocking people, I started engaging. And, for an anxious deeply feeling squishball like me, that was really outside my comfort zone.
Yes, there was a lot of blowback. Yes, I lost friends and family. Yes, I was on edge watching the three little dots undulate while someone typed an angry reply. But it was worth it, because for better or worse, the dialogue was opened. And each time I had a run in like this, I learned something new about myself and the world.
It also empowered me in a way I’ve never known before. I’m a whole new person with a strong voice who handles conflict WAY better than before. My creativity block opened up and I found communities and struggles worth fighting for.
(P.S. Find out more about MSB’s commitment to Social and Racial Justice in the Mental Health World and Beyond by clicking through to our BIPOC Mental Health Hub)
The Difference Between an Online Argument and a Healthy Disagreement
Now I’m not encouraging you to go out and pick fights on the internet. That is dumb (in my opinion). The idea behind this guide is to help you start a productive dialogue. One where you can disagree but still learn from the interaction.
That’s why we need to take a minute to suss out the difference between argument and disagreement.
Contrary to common belief, the difference between the two doesn’t come in the form of intensity. I can both disagree and argue with someone passionately, trading digital fireballs across the internet and be totally okay mentally.
It’s when the conversation takes that nasty turn into personal territory that my shoulders go up to my ears and my blood starts pumping. That’s right, the real crossroads between argument and disagreement lies in civility.
If you’re hitting below the belt, name calling, inflexible and taking the conversation in unproductive circles: you’re arguing.
If you’re angry, but willing to listen to the other person’s point of view, and sticking to the facts: you’re disagreeing. One is clearly healthier and more productive than the other.
Keep an eye out for people who just showed up to argue. There’s still value in engaging them but you’ll need different tactics to protect your mental health. We’ll talk about that in a bit. For now let’s focus on the biggest question I’m sure we all face when entering a FB argument:
To Argue Or Not To Argue? That Is The Question.
This is a tough one for me. If someone comes at me online, I’m often unsure what to do. If I don’t respond, then my opponent “wins” and I seem weak. But if do respond, I’m opening myself up to their anger and possibly even retaliation.
So what’s the mentally healthy choice in this situation? Well the first thing to remember is there’s no right or wrong answer. You can take the pressure of “making the right decision” and chuck it over your shoulder. You do whatever is right for you in the moment. No shame in the game.
If you do decide to engage, there are a few checks you can run to see if you should engage:
- Am I in a good place emotionally to handle an argument or disagreement right now?
- Is the Original Poster a real person or a troll? (An easy way to tell a troll is to click on their profile. If they have a very sparse profile that’s been recently created, then they most likely aren’t worth arguing with)
- What is my relationship like with this person? Are they a friend? Friend of a friend, family or a total stranger?
- Would this person be open to a discussion or would they try to force their point without listening to mine?
- If I do engage and it goes poorly, do I have time to recoup in my day?
All of these checks plus a few more help me decide whether to engage. Because, just like most things in life, you gotta pick your battles. Some people just aren’t worth your emotional energy and mental wellbeing.
Engaging in The Argument
Okay, so you’ve decided it’s worth it. You’re in the right place to engage with someone you disagree with online. Let’s do this!
Tip One on How To Argue Online: Stay Calm
The most important advice I can give is to stay calm. It’ll really help keep a productive conversation flowing if you don’t blow up. I know, I know -easier said than done in these cases. Here’s what helps me:
- Wait before replying to emotionally charged comments. Most times our initial reactions aren’t the best, most productive one. So take some time to feel your feelings, do some research, and come back with a well thought out response that adds to the conversation instead of detracts.
- Vent and get perspective from others. Moments like these really grind your gears! And that takes away from both our mental wellness and the conversation at hand. So call a friend or talk to a group you feel safe in to vent and get advice.
- Use Active Listening. Believe me, I know listening to someone’s perspective when you know they are just *wrong* is the LAST thing you want to do. But it might just be the most important thing you do in a heated online conversation. You might be surprised what you learn by asking leading questions and hearing out someone else’s POV. Even if it sucks.
Tip Two on How To Argue Online: Don’t Pick Up Their Energy
This one is for all my anxious over-thinkers out there!
If you’re a ruminator like me, it can be really easy to chew on every aspect of a bad interaction for DAYS. In addition, if you’re on the more sensitive side (HSP, Empath) it’ll be pretty easy for you to pick up on another person’s negative energy and carry it with you indefinitely. OOF.
You really, really can’t do that when arguing online. Holding onto another person’s negative energy is like poison to your mental wellbeing.
Of course I also know it’s ridiculous for me to tell an over-thinker to stop overthinking. Or tell an HSP or an Empath to just quit picking up feelings. While you may not be able to stop it altogether, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.
Here’s what helps me:
- Remember that it’s about them not you. Whatever mean thing someone says, it’s never about you. It’s all about their own nasty insecurities they haven’t taken care of. A good resource for learning to do this is in “The Four Agreements”, specifically agreement two: don’t take anything personally. “Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” -Don Miguel Ruiz
- Respond with kindness. Fires need fuel to burn. Up-keeping a nasty online disposition requires other people’s misery to keep it burning. Kindness and empathy are like sand on a bonfire. So take a deep breath and respond kindly (and firmly). It’ll stop them in their tracks because they aren’t expecting it. Bonus you get to walk away with the good feeling of being the bigger person.
- Brush your shoulders off. After a highly emotionally charged moment, it’s imperative to get. it. out. I know it sounds a little woo woo (and maybe it is, whatevs) but energy sticks to you, especially bad energy. And it builds up unless you get rid of it. So yeet those bad vibes with exercise, art, venting, yelling into a pillow, petting a cat, writing – whatever makes you feel balanced again.
Tip Three On How To Argue Online: Stick To The Facts
Ah yes, sticking to the facts. This is a hard one when someone is hurling insults at you or keeps attempting to lead the conversation in a ridiculous direction. Here’s some strategies that have helped me in the past.
- Have your receipts ready Do your research and know which articles and facts to bring up to defend your point. Now, this is not the same as doing the emotional labor of explaining concepts to people. That’s a common trick trolls use to deflect from the point of the conversation. They have Google too and are more than welcome to read the articles you post.
- When the conversation gets derailed, respond with facts and not emotions. In some cases, people who are determined to argue will hijack the conversation, leading it to an emotional, aggressive and unproductive place. Now, you can’t do much about their part but you CAN control your response. And the best thing to do is stick to emotionless facts that keep the point of the discussion front and center.
- Don’t use statistics as facts. I see this a lot where people just pull a statistic from the web and use it to prove a point. I can’t say this enough: stats are not facts. They are way too easily manipulated and can derail a conversation faster than you can say “statistically.”
Tip Four On How To Argue Online: Know What To Do If The Conversation Goes South
So even with all of this advice, there’s always a good chance the conversation can take a dive. Either you lose your cool or the other person or people (dogpiling anyone?) are just not listening. Or worse, the conversation moves to threats.
This is kind of a sucky situation because, despite your best intentions (and receipts) the conversation still fails. It can leave you with a yucky angry feeling and might even make you question your own resolve.
But fear not, even in this case there are ways to protect yourself mentally (and physically).
- Make sure your personal social media is on private mode. First of all it’s just a good idea to protect your data people! But it can be even more critical if you make an online enemy. Make sure your profile is private and no personal info like address, phone number, etc. is displayed. This’ll give you peace of mind, trust me.
- Report abusers and block them on all channels. If someone is just being rude af, violent or threatening, report them. Block them. just say “Boy BYE”. Don’t waste anymore time on them.
- Remember that it’s not just about the person you’re arguing with. If you feel crappy for having wasted time with someone who clearly wasn’t going to change their mind – consider this. It’s not about the person you’re arguing with, it’s about the people who are watching on social media. There may be tons of people reading the thread. Your words, facts, and passion could very well be changing their perspective. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
Choosing to give up your peace to make a point online is a very personal decision. Even if you do it mindfully, there will always be consequences. Energetically and otherwise. I don’t suggest doing so unless you’re committed.
But perhaps consider this. The world is changing. For better or worse, social media is the chosen battleground which we all have to inhabit. There is no going back.
With that in mind, we have a chance to make real change with our voices. And not just on politically charged issues either. You can use these tools to really connect with people you normally would ignore (think that one aunt who posts passive aggressive Minion memes). Or to give a really productive counterpoint to a family argument.
You could even stand up for something you really care about but have been too afraid to speak up about.
Let’s get out there and start creating dialogues big and small. The world will be better for hearing your voice.
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